Why should I keep chickens in my backyard?
Apart from beautiful fresh eggs, chickens are fantastic at recycling kitchen and garden scraps, digging up new vegetable gardens, controlling backyard pests, and producing rich manure to fertilize vegetables and fruit trees.
Before you embark on keeping chickens in your backyard, it is important to check with your local council on any guidelines, regulations or restrictions in your area. In the ACT, the keeping of backyard chickens is governed by the Animal Welfare (Welfare of Poultry: Non-Commercial) Code of Practice 2010: www.legislation.act.gov.au/di/2010-89
What do I need to know to start keeping backyard chickens?
Housing & Shelter
The Code of Practice recommends minimum housing conditions of 3m2 for three large hens including perches, nesting area and foraging area. This can be either in a permanent pen or in a moveable ‘chook tractor’. All housing needs to be predator proof (foxes roam in urban areas). When siting your new chicken house, give consideration to design and position of the run in relation to sun/shade, slope of the land, proximity to the house, and proximity to the compost pile. It is a good idea to plan a second run/option for when you need to clean out the original pen.
Bedding material is needed for nesting areas and runs. Straw, shredded newspaper, leaves and sawdust are good choices. This should to be changed regularly to ensure the area is dry and clean (a compost heap nearby will be handy).
Chickens need regular access to a dry ‘dust bath’ allowing parasite and mite prevention.
Consideration should always be given to how and where you feed chickens. Scraps and grain can attract rats, mice, flies and other animals that could bring parasites and diseases. Feeding your chickens in the morning, with no more than can be eaten in one sitting should minimise this risk.
Household and garden scraps are a fantastic way to get your family’s waste recycled into eggs. However don’t feed your chickens meat or dairy products for disease/bacteria potential. Never feed chickens mouldy scraps or foods infected with salmonella as it can kill the chickens -put it in the compost heap instead. Ensure the bucket you keep their food scraps in is scrupulously clean to prevent mould, bacteria and other diseases from breeding. Keep an old dish brush near where you fill up their water as a reminder.
Chickens need protein, especially heavy egg producing breeds. Their protein requirement can be supplemented though free range scratching for bugs/worms or breeding mealy worms to feed them. Commercial pellets and seed can be purchased from rural and pet stores.
Chickens need access to shell grit. The shell grit adds calcium for shell formation and aides gut processes. Leave a container in the pen for easy access.
Chickens need access to fresh clean potable water, free from algae and other contaminants. There are commercial water containers available but give consideration to how many chickens and weather conditions when purchasing. Chickens need more water in the warmer months, so a larger container will be required. Water feeders with a nipple may freeze in cold winters. It is a good idea to have more than one container.
Good management and hygiene are essential to maintaining healthy birds. Sick birds may separate themselves and appear depressed, have a droopy comb or tail, be dull and fluffed, have a dark or pale comb and be pecked by other birds. Chickens can also be commonly infected with lice, mites and worms. If you think your chicken may be sick, speak to your veterinarian or trusted breeder for a second opinion.
You can give your chickens preventatives such as garlic, apple cider vinegar, and allow access to wormwood and tansy.
Crossbreeds are most commonly kept as they lay a lot of eggs and rarely go broody. There are also many types of pure breeds that have quiet temperaments and lay many eggs throughout their lifetime. Bantams are miniature chickens and are a great option for smaller areas, they produce smaller eggs.
What age to buy
Chickens can be bought at any age, day old chicks, pullets (16 to 20 weeks), point of lay (20 weeks) and older less productive chooks as pets.
Check your local council on whether you can keep a rooster. Roosters can be aggressive and will crow early morning. You should think about your neighbours when deciding on a rooster.
Where to buy
Chickens can be purchased from rural stores, local breeders through Canberra Backyard Poultry, farmers markets, and some schools may have programs that sell chickens they have bred.
If you are not sure you are ready to own your own chickens and would like to ‘try before you buy’, check out canberrabackyardpoultry.com or www.rentachook.com.au for backyard chicken rental arrangements.
What does keeping chickens have to do with sustainability and permaculture?
Permaculture is a design system that focusses on relationships and synergy between the components in a system. You can use the natural characteristics of chickens such as scratching foraging, producing heat, eggs and manure around your garden to your benefit.
Chickens can be useful in the garden by:
- scratching out and preparing vegetable beds for the next planting,
- incorporating their housing into your greenhouse design to provide heat and manure in the colder months for your plants,
- foraging under fruit trees and orchards controlling pests and minimizing weeds in a natural non-chemical way,
- composting garden and kitchen waste that would otherwise have gone to landfill, whilst producing valuable non-chemical fertilizer in the form of manure, and providing fabulous fresh eggs for your family.